The Iraqi Novel: Key Writers, Key Texts

Fabio Caiani and Catherine Cobham, The Iraqi Novel: Key Writers, Key Texts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 264 pp., £65.00. ISBN 978 0 7486 4141 3 (hbk)


Fabio Caiani and Catherine Cobham’s The Iraqi Novel: Key Writers, Key Texts is a comprehensive study, which focuses on the historical development of the Iraqi novel. It analyses key texts by prominent pioneer authors who started fiction writing earlier in the twentieth century. The fixation on the writings of the first half of the twentieth century, as Caiani and Cobham point out, allows the reader to view ‘the technical development of Iraqi fiction during its formative period, and also to illustrate the ideological and cultural transformation of Iraqi intellectual life during the same period’ (p. 1). The period examined in this book coincides with the emergence and formation of Iraq as a modern nation-state. The study, hence, places the selected authors and their narratives in their historical context. As a result, we are shown how external factors such as the political, social and cultural transformations, had their effect on the Iraqi intellectuals’ frame of thought and how it had shaped the literature of the twentieth century.

The book is divided into eight chapters proceeded by an introduction and concluded by an epilogue. The first part of the introduction offers an overview of the history of Iraq since the Ottoman occupation and until World War II. This era highlights the transition from a traditional religious thinking during the Ottoman rule to a modern secular atmosphere following the British system. According to Caiani and Cobham, ‘[…] from the time of the British occupation, and later under the Mandate and the nominally independent monarchy, Iraq became more open to new ideas. These usually came from the West, and their impact was more direct, as intellectuals did not feel the need to adapt them to a transnational Islamic context’ (pp, 11-12).

The following parts of the introduction explore the emergence and development of modern Iraqi literature by focusing on three key texts by pioneer writers: Sulayman Faydi’s al-Riwaya al-Iqadhiya(1919); Mahamud Ahmad al-Sayyid’s Jalal Khalid (1928) and Dhu al-Nun Ayyub’s al-Duktur Ibrahim(1939). The rationale behind selecting those writers and their texts, as proposed by Caiani and Cobham, is that the development of Iraqi fiction since its emergence until World War II can be viewed by comparing and contrasting their key works. The critical exploration of these three key literary texts show their common features and limitations such as the adaptation of flat characters, direct authorial voice, and simple plot and elaborated language.

Firstly, Caiani and Cobham analyse Faydi’s al-Riwaya focusing on its themes, narrative techniques and a mixture of styles as memoirs, autobiography and fiction. They highlight the instructional content and the didactic nature of the text, mentioning that it was directed to students and parents to teach them lessons about manners, good and evil. That was why the text was adopted by formal schools and children used to learn some of its parts. Caiani and Cobham mention that this text inspired other writers to compose similar works for pedagogic purposes as Jalal Khalid. The focus moves then to Al-Sayyid’s novella Jalal Khalid which represents a significant change in content and style in comparison to al-Riwaya. Caiani and Cobham point out that ‘Al-Sayyid’s Jalal had a significant impact on ‘the ideological formation of the Iraqi youth’ and succeeded in depicting faithfully the crisis of many young intellectuals of the time’ (p.4). This was reflected through the story of Jalal, a twenty-year-old student who goes through ‘a period of spiritual and cultural crisis’ while defining the cultural, social and political issues of the 1919–23 Iraq. Caiani and Cobham classify the text as melodramatic and fantastic hinting that it was composed to muse the youth. However, they never deny the fact that this text represents a move from the traditional and educational discourse to new ideas of the political left that will characterise the writings of the next generation: ‘1950s generation’. Finally, we are introduced to Ayyub’s novel al-Duktur which represents a leap forward from the previous two texts regarding style, narrative technique and content. Through the story of Dr Ibrahim, a young, educated Iraqi who gains political power and wealth in Iraq after returning from Europe with a high certificate, the author presents a direct critique to the political elite, corruption and lack of freedom in the country. By mentioning that ‘Ayyub’s Duktur […] attracted a wide readership because of its political themes’ (p.4), Caiani and Cobham confirm to us that the Iraqi writing and readership that preferred didactic and romantic subjects had moved towards the secular and political ideas, mainly of the political left. Thus, the examination of the three texts shows the reader the development of Iraqi writing from 1919 until 1939. The book traces the shift from didactic themes that address students to social topics directed towards the young generation and then to political and leftist topics that were meant to criticise the political situation and the ills in the Iraqi society. Additionally, Caiani and Cobham propose the idea that these ‘texts look intriguingly hybrid, as they combine a variety of different styles and techniques: poems, memoirs, letters, autobiography and fiction’ (p.18). This evaluation reflects the important contribution of these earlier works to Iraqi fiction and introduces a different view of these writings which are considered unsophisticated and immature by some Arab writers and critics.

The following eight chapters of this book focus respectively on key novelists who started writing in the decades following the earlier writers Faydi, al-Sayyid and Ayyub. The key writers who belong to the ‘1950s generation’ and some of their works are Ghaib Tuma Farman’s al-Nakhla wa-’l-jiran (‘The Palm Tree and the Neighbours’, 1966), six short stories by Abd al-Malik Nuri, Mahdi Isa al-Saqr’s al-Shatiʾ al-thani (‘The Other Shore’, 1998) and Fuad al-Takarli’s al-Masarrat wa-’l-awjaʿ (‘Joys and Sorrows’, 1998).  Before the discussion of each text, we are given a brief introduction to the writer where we learn about how politics, exile (internal and external) and cross-cultural literary exchange (Western or Arabic) affect the author’s life and shape the multifarious settings in the fictional work. The socio-political turmoil Iraq had been going through provided a unique forum aspiring writers and intellectuals to set the cultural and literary trends of the period. Thus, the book does not only identify the modern literary trends but it also shows the social, cultural and political development that represents the background for these trends like coups, political dispute, censorship and banishment of the intellectuals as was the case with ‘Farman and al-Takarli [who] spent long years living in exile and died ‘on foreign soil, while Nuri and al-Saqr can be said to have experienced internal exile, although in very different ways’ (p. 242). This could be noticed through the main topics addressed by the three writers like nostalgia, exile, oppression and political corruption.

The book dedicates two chapters to the exploration of each author and a novel. As argued by Caiani and Cobham, with those writers ‘and their peers we have the beginning of the artistic Iraqi short story, artistic Iraqi fiction, the artistic Iraqi novel’ (p.36). Caiani and Cobham point out that literary texts produced during the 1950s and 1960s show a transition from fiction that was mainly concerned with political and social matters to one which, while still engaged with social and political matters, is formally more adventurous and politically more mature. Caiani and Cobham contend that with the writings of the ‘1950s generation’, ‘A more mature kind of fiction, with more engaging characterisation, less overt authorial discourse, and more lyrical and evocative language led to a more sophisticated and subversive portrayal of Iraqi realities. This became the domain of the writers of the next generation, the so-called ‘1950s generation’ (p, 21).  The development in style and content is marked by the move from a didactic fiction to a more elaborated writing. For instance, the first two chapters show us how Nuri’s narratives carry a lyrical and evocative style in addition to initiating the stream of consciousness and interior monologue. The successive chapters of the book provide a critical and textual analysis of works by al-Takarli and Farman exploring their development of social realism genre by appropriating Auerbach’s definition of literary realism. Readers are introduced to the ways al-Takarli and Farman experiment in new types of narrative techniques and writing styles such as metafiction, irony and stream of consciousness.

Caiani and Cobham believe that an author’s personal circumstances are vital elements to unpack a literary text. Here, they seem in agreement with Bakhtin, who argues in his essay, “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel,” that while we read the novels in the absence of their novelists, we encounter them as the authors of the narrative text.[1] Thus, before the examination of each novel, readers are offered a biographical survey of the author’s life. For instance, chapter three that explores Farman’s work introduces us first to his biography: his birth in Baghdad, his education then attraction to Marxist ideas and European literary realism, and finally, we know about his displacement and exile. These facts together anticipated to the development of Farman’s literary skills and shaped his writing trajectory. The similar structure is followed in the other chapters of the book.

The epilogue of the book looks at exile and its effect on literature. It also explores the literary canon of other Iraqi writers as Muhammad Khudayyir. Caiani and Cobham mention that Khudayyir and al-Saqr’s both live inside and ‘offer a vision of a different Iraq, a country conscious not only of its past and present tragedies, but also of its glories and its future possibilities’ (p.245). Caiani and Cobham describe the internal and external exile of those writers and Iraqis in general:

Since the creation of Iraq almost a century ago, its citizens have suffered from actual physical exile (like Yusuf Ibn Hilal) or various forms of internal exile (such as isolation, including banishment to a remote area of the country, alienation and marginalisation). For example, of the four writers of the 1950s generation whose works we have discussed above, Farman and al-Takarli spent long years living in exile and died ‘on foreign soil’, while Nuri and al-Saqr can be said to have experienced internal exile, although in very different ways. (p. 242)


To conclude, Caiani and Cobham have offered their readers an original exploration of modern Iraqi literature and of literary works that are relatively unknown to Anglophone readership. They argue that the study aims to “fill in a glaring gap in scholarship in the field of Arabic literature” (p, vi). I find it imperative to mention here that this book is preceded by a similar study by Najm A. Kazim’s The Iraqi Novel from 1965-1980 and the Influence of American Novel: With a Special Reference to William Faulkner the Sound and the Shelly (2016). Kazim’s study ‘focuses on the emergence and development of modern Iraqi literature and shows the effect of the Arabic and Western novel on the literature of Iraq’ (2016: 6).[2] However, Kazim’s study does not follow a critical or methodological school of thought nor attempts a detailed textual and literary analysis.  Thus, I argue that Caiani and Cobham’s book could be considered as the best critical study on modern Iraqi novel available at present. This book is valuable for scholars and researchers interested in Arabic and Iraqi literature. Moreover, the style of writing is easily accessible to students, non-specialists and well informed scholars as well.


Farah Alrajeh

University of Sussex

Falmer, UK



[1] Bakhtin, Mikhail M., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. M. Holoquist (Austin and London: University of Texas Press. 1981), p. 254.

[2] Kazim, Najm A., The Iraqi Novel from 1965-1980 and the Influence of American Novel: With a Special Reference to William Faulkner the Sound and the Shelly, 2nd ed. (Baghdad: Dar al-Shu’un al-Thaqafiya al-Amma, 2016), p. 6. This study is originally a Doctorate dissertation in English submitted in 1987. It was later published into a book in Arabic, 1st edition 1987, 2nd edition in 2016).